Blockchain, transparency and food safety

March 2, 2018

On Dec. 11, 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and several states in investigating the source of five illnesses in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in December began investigating an outbreak of infections linked to romaine lettuce in several provinces.

There was no recall in the U.S. because officials were unable to identify the specific source. The PHAC issued a “do not eat” advisory for romaine, but was also unable to pinpoint product to recall.

(You can read a full accounting of this incident in the next print issue of Produce Processing.)

That lack of precision led to blanket recalls instead of warnings targeted at specific product numbers or even specific manufacturers.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has mandated certain levels of traceability.  However, exactly what form those records take, how they are stored and importantly, how they are shared is up to processors.

One way to answer the question of record storage and accessibility is the blockchain. This is the same system that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The main difference between a traceability system that keeps its records on the cloud, compared to a blockchain system, is who can access the records.

By using the blockchain, these records can be accessed by anyone. This creates a level of accessibility called “radical transparency” said Ben Massoud, manager of communications with United Fresh Produce Association.

Peter Mehring, CEO and co-founder of Zest Labs and president of Zest Technologies, prefers the term “true transparency.” Zest produces software and sensors that help track and prioritize pallet staging for pre-cooling, and matches outbound shipment requirements with incoming product quality and availability.

He said in order to take advantages of blockchain, processors first need to collect quality data on their products. Zest does this by using sensors that automatically log things like when products are shipped and at what temperature the products are kept. Also important, Mehring said, it gives each shipment, or pallet depending on how the sensors are used, its own unique serial number.

“Blockchain needs a serialized number, it needs quality data input,” he said. “Blockchain securely stores transactions in a ledger and it does it in a trusted sharable format it that has now become standardized across blockchain and that’s all great, but  if you don’t have quality data input then it doesn’t matter how securely you store it and the trust you put on that ledger.”

What is blockchain? – (Excerpt of a report from Chainlink Research)

Blockchain is technology providing an immutable, secure, decentralized, shared ledger. Breaking down this definition (in reverse order):

  • Ledger — Similar to a financial ledger, a blockchain is an ordered list of transactions. Transactions can be financial exchanges (as on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency blockchains) or the record of an event, such as a hand‐off in a chain of custody, the completion of a task, or even a temperature reading at a specific time and place. The sequence of validated transactions is strictly maintained. For cryptocurrencies, this prevents double‐spend, as the oldest transaction prevails and newer duplicates are invalidated.
  • Shared — The ledger provides a common view (aka the single version of the truth) across many parties, even if they lack trust or a longstanding relationship.
  • Decentralized — The ledger is broadly replicated and verified by a large number of different entities. This makes blockchains robust and resistant to cyberattacks and system failures, as an attacker or outage would have to impact a large portion of the network of entities in order to compromise the blockchain. The degree of decentralization varies between different blockchains, depending on the goals and design.
  • Immutable — The ledger is immutable, meaning that transactions can never by deleted or modified. If there is an error in a transaction, it can only be corrected by writing a new transaction undoing the error. This makes blockchains highly auditable, as there can be no after‐the‐fact rewriting without a clear trail of what happened.
  • Secure — Cryptographic technology (e.g. hashes, digital signatures) is used to ensure there is no tampering with the data in the blockchain. The way in which hashes are used to link the content of each block of transactions from/to the previous and next blocks is how blockchain got its name.